Paul Theroux on travel, old age, India and Singaporeans

Paul Theroux, who is celebrating his 74th birthday today, is eminently quotable. I was going through The Great Railway Bazaar, his runaway bestseller published in 1975, and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, published in 2008, where he once again travels by rail from England to Japan and back, and this is what I found. The Great Railway Bazaar gives you vivid descriptions of Singapore and Calcutta as they were in the 1970s. Singapore features prominently in the later book as well, but not Calcutta. The second book touches on Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, where he paid a visit to Sai Baba’s ashram, but not Calcutta. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, however, has the juicier quotes.

Here are some quotes from Ghost Train to the Eastern Star on old age, travel writing, India and Singaporeans.

Travel writing

Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen. Being unobserved – the usual condition of the older traveller – is much more useful than being obvious. You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored. Such a traveller isn’t in a hurry, which is why you might mistake him for a bum. Hating schedules, depending on chance encounters, I am attracted by travel’s slow tempo.
Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long-distance aimlessness – travelling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating. And this ghostliness, I was to find, was also an effect of the journey I had chosen, returning to places I had known many years ago. It is almost to return to an early scene in your travelling life and not feel like a spectre. And many places I saw were themselves sad and spectral, others big and hectic, while I was the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.

Old age

A great satisfaction in growing old – one of many – is assuming the role of a witness to the wobbling of the world and seeing irreversible changes, The downside, besides the tedium of listening to the delusions of the young, is hearing the same hackneyed opinions over and over…
Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes – but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame.


In a world of change, India is exceptional. Everyone talks about India’s great leap, Indian modernity, Indian millionaires, and “You must see the transformation of Bangalore.” “The Indian miracle” was a boasting rant in every Western newspaper, but on the evidence of Amritsar this assertion was a crock, not just a joke in bad taste but the cruellest satire. It seemed to me that little had changed except the size of the population, an unfeedable, unhousable, uncontainable 1.3 billion people, not many of them saying “We are modern now” because more than a third of them were working for a dollar a day. Indians boast of the miracle, but when I mentioned to entrepreneurs the 400 million people living below the poverty line, they just bobbled their heads and hummed or else went silent, darkening in resentment that I raised the question and refusing to tell me what they paid their employees…
No one succeeds in India without exploiting someone else, defrauding him, sitting on his head, twisting his arm, getting him to work for 12 cents an hour. The news is all about the winners – big business, call centres, manufacturing, textiles, all the rest of it. But for there to be big winners in India, there have to be bigger losers. It is the system.
Who shares in the wealth? In the Punjab, I heard of a powerful Indian lawyer who earned $1.5 million a year and still paid his driver $20 a week and got his shoes shined for 25 cents..
The losers in India have their revenge, always, as I saw all over Amritsar: not just the strikes and sit-downs and go-slows to torment employers, but the visible fact that the biggest, fastest limousine is forced to travel at a crawl behind the pony carts and the skinny men on their bicycle rickshaws. That is the other truth about India, that so much of it is a moral lesson, a set of simple visuals; so much of it is vivid symbolism, the cows and the rickshaws and men pulling wagons, slowing the progress of limos and delivery trucks. The truck might be delivering computers, God knows, but the computers won’t get through any quicker than the men with ten sacks of beans in his wheelbarrow.


Like Lee (Kuan Yew), Singaporeans are assiduous, honest, tidy to the point of obsessiveness, and efficient. They also tend to be inflexible and stern. They are fluent in English, though with a small vocabulary, and in pronunciation and idiomatic bewilderments have made the language their own. Their jaw-twisting yips and glottal stops are so sudden and glugging that some words can sound less like language than a gag reflex.

Theroux can be cruel. Of course, traffic is chaotic and bottlenecked in India. But other countries experience gridlocks too. Singaporeans have their idioms and accents which may baffle some from other countries. But that’s true of English speakers all over the world. Accents and idioms vary from place to place. Thoreaux writes as if the English spoken by Singaporeans were a foreign language. That’s unfair.

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